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Esther and the Theology of Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2022 | 9 min read

By John Carpenter

Thanksgiving is our most Christian holiday. Just ask the Puritans. They did not give us Thanksgiving as an annual holiday after a great feast to celebrate a year of survival in America and then say, “This was fun, let’s do it again next year.” No. They had Thanksgivings because of their theology. Thanksgiving is a theological holiday when we celebrate providence, like the original Purim when the Jews spontaneously feasted at their deliverance (Esther 9:18) before scheduling it as an annual event (Esther 9:22). Providence deserves a holiday.

Besides the weekly “sabbath,” Puritans believed that there were two special days during the year. They didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, eschewing the traditional liturgical calendar. They didn’t celebrate any annual dates. Rather, they kept Fast Days and Thanksgiving days. Neither were on set days in the calendar. They were spontaneous, responsive to events. If there were droughts, or ship-wrecks, or Indian attacks, or trouble in the church or society, like heresies arising, contention in the churches, neglect of family order and worship, immorality among the youth, they saw those events as whips in God’s hands to discipline them. So, they would call a day for repentance and humiliation. Each family was called to prepare their hearts, arrive early at church, simply dressed. Then they would hear preaching, sing psalms, and pray. The purpose was to afflict the soul, say “woe is me,” and seek God’s mercy.

Dark Nights of the Soul

To be truly thankful, we need days of repentance and self-affliction. We need some “dark nights of the soul,” to taste the bitter before we can appreciate the sweet, desperately seeking the God we know we have offended and who we know is in control of all the adversities that have been unleashed on us. The idea of fasting might seem bizarre to people today — an age of self-indulgence, of a therapeutic god who empathizes but doesn’t control. But if the afflictions don’t come from God, then neither do the blessings. In which case, God isn’t really doing anything. Rather, “God” is just a kind of drug used to numb us to the realities of life. That’s not the unmentioned God of the book of Esther. In Esther, when adversity struck, God’s people saw God as the controller who could be appealed to. At the beginning of Esther 4, Mordecai and the people fasted. Esther calls on Mordecai and the people to fast (Esther 9:15). They fast because they believe in providence. That’s what we’re missing today: the sense of God’s hand behind our adversity so we can’t see his hand in our blessings. We can’t really feast before we’ve fasted.

The Puritans called about three times as many fasting days as they did Thanksgiving days. Three times. It says a lot about us, that we have neglected this fasting day and only kept the feasting day. But I’m glad that, at least, we’ve kept that one Puritan holiday, even if we’ve annualized it. Thanksgiving days too were spontaneous, in response to events. If there was a good harvest, victory in war or peace broke out, health maintained, prosperity, general mercies or — as in Esther — God’s people were delivered from their enemies, a day to feast and give thanks to God was called. From 1632 to 1686, New England held sixty-one Thanksgiving days, on average more than one per year but clustered in times of turmoil. Thirty of the holidays were called between 1660-1677, almost two a year in the wake of the restoration of the monarchy and subsequent persecution in England, thankful things didn’t turn out as badly as feared. Thanksgiving recognizes that God is, indeed, in control of our good clean biopsy, our raise, our chemo that succeeds in wiping out our cancer, even our dinner table. That’s exactly what Esther teaches: that God powerfully, perfectly, and providentially rules all our affairs and, through often anonymous means, protects his people.

On one, human level, Esther is the story of how a beautiful Jewish girl — Hadassah — was chosen to be queen in the Median-Persian Empire, renamed Esther and, with the help of the cousin who raised her (Mordecai), she was able to prevent the massacre of her people. But there’s a deeper story. There is something far deeper going on than merely the protection of the Jews by a series of amazing coincidences. The key to the book is when Mordecai tells Esther, in 4:14, that though you may be afraid to approach the king, you can be certain, “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place. . . And who knows but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?”

The Anonymous Sovereign

Even though God is not mentioned once in this book, his sovereignty, his ruling over all things, is assumed. Mordecai tells Esther, you need to intervene for your people, to risk your life by barging in on the king, even though you might get killed for going to him without an invitation. But even if you don’t intervene, someone else will be raised up. Look what he leaves implied in 4:14. Who will raise up “relief and deliverance”? The unnamed master of providence. Then Mordecai says that you have been brought to your position for “such a time as this.” Think about what he leaves assumed: Who brought her to her position? Anonymous but in control.

That doctrine — providence — is something we need in order to be truly thankful. After all, if receiving good things depends on good fortune randomly striking us; if the forces that have brought us all food, family, housing and video games are impersonal and random, just lucky happenstance — we might be overflowing with good things, all that we could wish for, but there is no One behind them providing them — then there’s no one to be thankful to. We can be happy we got lucky. But it would no more make sense being thankful, if that’s the way the universe is, than it would be to send thank you cards to the management of the casino where you happened to hit the jackpot.

Or, as many people believe, their good things came about because they were hard working and smart. They studied in school; they made the breaks happen. So, there’s no need to be thankful or humble. We look out over the Turkey Day spread and smugly congratulate ourselves for what our hands have wrought.

Thankfulness comes when we really believe that there is a God who is at work; when in distinction to the ignorance of the “lucky” and the arrogance of the self-made, we believe in providence; when we look at all the good we’ve received, perhaps a loving spouse, children, a home, rewarding work, food and drink, churches where others too are thankful, a country where we’re free to attend and support those churches, then it wasn’t just luck, it wasn’t because we worked hard and smart, it was because a gracious God placed us where we are, for such a time as this.

It is this unnamed God in Esther that gives Mordecai his confidence. He knows “relief and deliverance” will arise from somewhere. He has assurance — he can confidently tell Esther that relief will be raised up from somewhere — because he knows God will be faithful to his promises. Knowing that, they can be thankful when they are delivered and feast. They celebrate because they see all the good things — particularly their deliverance — as, also, coming from the Lord.

There are a lot of feasts in the book of Esther. At least six. The story starts with the king having a feast and getting carried away — getting drunk and demanding his first queen come out and show off how beautiful she was. She refuses and that sets the stage for Esther. Esther is chosen as the replacement queen. There is then another feast for her wedding to the king in 2:18. In chapter 5, when Esther wants to win the king’s favor and get him to change the plot against the Jews, she knows the king’s weak spot. She calls for a party. When the party is over, the king asks her what she wants and she says, ‘Let’s have another party tomorrow!’ When Mordecai has been given the position and property of the evil Haman, there is a celebration all through the capital city of Susa (8:15-17). Then when the plot against the Jews has been foiled and they’ve defended themselves successfully, they have a celebration, a feast. That holiday is celebrated by the Jews to this day as the feast of Purim.

Rights and Gifts

We’re ungrateful when we forget the difference between what we deserve and what is a gift. In the book of Esther, the wicked Haman, plotting to murder all the Jews, has a lot of be thankful for. In 5:10-13, he lists all his blessings. He is vastly wealthy, powerful, honored; he has many sons. But he’s not thankful. He couldn’t be grateful because he took what he had for granted; he “boasted” in all these things, as though they were his by right. He concentrated on what he didn’t have — respect from Mordecai. Haman could not see that what he had was a gift from God. He thought he earned it, so he boasted of it. That’s what made him so evil.

If you deserve it, if it’s your “right” to have it, then you have no reason to be thankful for it. If you work an hour for your company, you have the right to an hour’s pay. It’s not their gift to you. You don’t even have to be thankful to the company for paying you. It’s their obligation. But that’s not the way it is with God. God is not obligated to give us any good thing. That He does, indeed, give us every good thing does not say anything about our rights or our worth. It says everything about the goodness and generosity of God. Thanksgiving exists to remind us of that.

In the book of Esther, Esther knows she did not have a right to barge in on the king, to come in at any time to see him. The default penalty for doing so was death. In other words, the king didn’t have to do anything if someone went to see him without being bidden to come. If he just stayed quiet, the guards would haul the impudent intruder away and kill him or her. That’s why Esther appealed, in prayer and fasting, to the king’s King. Yet she knew she did not have a right to make the King of the universe do what she wanted either. Mordecai knew that God would raise up deliverance from somewhere. They were assured by God’s promises. But they didn’t know whether Esther was God’s chosen instrument for that deliverance. They knew God would make good on His promises. But how He would make good on them, they didn’t know. Even the confident Mordecai had to put it to Esther as a question, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Who knows? There’s confidence in God’s promises without presuming on God’s means. So, Esther determined to do what she could, and confessed, “If I perish, I perish” (4:16).

God is completely free of all obligations to bless us. Yet he does anyway. Deliverance will come from God. It might come through Esther. That job you have, it didn’t just come (ultimately) from the company; your business didn’t come from your hard work or the economy. Our economy or your company were the tools God used to bring you the job so you could have money to buy food and pay for your house. Your company delivered God’s gift to you, like the mailman delivers packages to you. It’s really the one who sends you the package that you should thank – not the mailman. It’s nice to thank the people who do their duty and deliver things to you. But if all you do is thank the people, it’s like getting a great gift in the mail and only thanking the mailman. Ultimately, it is always the Lord who authorizes the pay-check or sends the packages.

This is called, in theological terms, the doctrine of providence. God presides over all “natural” things; he provides through what appears to be natural events. He rules in the storm and in the peaceful sunny day. He rules in our health and in our cancer. He might often be unseen, as he is unmentioned in the book of Esther, but He’s always there, presiding.

No “Ifs”

Look at the amazing “coincidences” of the book of Esther. God can see that this wicked man Haman, the king’s prime minister, is scheming to destroy God’s people. If Haman succeeds, then the ancestors of the Lord Jesus Himself would be killed. Terminator-style, Haman is plotting to kill the deliverer before he’s even born, whether he knows it or not. There would be no savior because Haman would have murdered the people who brought Him about. So, what happens? If the king hadn’t gotten drunk and demanded his wife exhibit herself. . . If the first queen, Vashti, hadn’t refused . . . If the advice given to the king had been different and there was no beauty contest . . . If Esther’s parents hadn’t died so she was attached to Mordecai as an adoptive father . . . If Esther wasn’t so beautiful . . . If she hadn’t been discovered by the king’s beauty-hunters . . . If Esther hadn’t won the beauty contest by winning “favor” (i.e. grace, 1:9) . . . If Mordecai hadn’t discovered the plot against the king. . . If the king hadn’t been pleased to see Esther when she came to appeal for the Jews. . . If the king had not been unable to sleep that night before Esther revealed Haman’s plot. . . And on it goes, an incredible series of events, that if only one had been changed, the plot could have been successful. But the lesson of the book of Esther is that there are no ifs.

In Thanksgiving, we celebrate, like the Puritans, that there are no ifs. That turkey, that over-filled table, that harried wife or distracted husband (eager to get back to the football game), that beating heart in your chest all came from the firm hand of a God who depends on no variables. So, be thankful and eat up.

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